Monday, February 20, 2017


Last week I was at the Rasa Theory Workshop at Manipal University, which I hope to blog about at some point later. Now I'm in Mysore doing some reading for a few days. I came across this storefront while at the Jaganmohan Palace, and thought it was worth sharing:

The shopkeepers are probably not employing śleṣa (intentional double-meaning or ambiguity) on the Sanskrit term ākāṅkṣā, but then again, who knows? In Sanskrit philosophy of language, the term means "expectation" or maybe, "anticipation." I like the latter just so I can illustrate the idea with this clip from the (classic) Rocky Horror Picture Show:

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The relevance of classical/medieval Indian philosophy

This week I was scheduled to lecture on Annaṃbhaṭṭa's Tarkasaṃgraha. The primer was written in 17th century India to introduce students to Nyāya philosophy. Heavy on my mind over the weekend while I was revising the lecture (I gave a version last semester as well) was the rising of a new administration in the US. (I'd prefer not to include its name here so as to avoid unwelcome search term visitors.)

There's discussion in some quarters of the Internet about revising syllabi in order to address contemporary issues. For philosophers inclined to do so, I see no reason to object--especially if one's work is contemporary and courses are easily adjusted to incorporate discussion of these things. However, what should those of us who are teaching classes in, say, pre-modern or medieval philosophy do? Do we need to jettison material which doesn't explicitly speak to the modern political context?

I don't think so. My lecture to the students this week began by emphasizing the pervasiveness and importance of debate. Some debates are truth-seeking, some are not. We need to know the difference so we can spot interlocutors who after power or confusion rather than truth. And so we should think about methods of reasoning, such as inference, along with Nyāya, who is concerned with debate (both with an actual interlocutor, but also the kind of internal debate that goes on when truth-seeking). Further, Nyāya is after how to live well, how to do what is right, and not just metaphysical and epistemological hair-splitting. Metaphysics and epistemology are important for liberation, the highest good for Nyāya.

Quote is a translation revised from
Jonardon Ganeri, The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India 1450-1700,
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p122.
I set up the historical context for the students--when Annaṃbhaṭṭa is writing his introductory text, he's writing in a time of increasing cultural complexity, where globally, authoritarianism is on the rise (in places like France) and there's tension among followers of Islam and other religions, despite the fact that Islam is nowhere near a monolith. It was a time of global upheaval, we might say, with dynasties in China being overturned and religious conflict in Europe. I let the students draw the parallels, but I think it was fairly clear--as the Preacher says, there is nothing new under the sun.

We then talked about inference, its relationship to perception, its varieties, its obstacles. Throughout, I challenged the students to think about their own reasoning and other examples. How do they know that two things are causally related? What should they say to a skeptic? How should they respond to a counter-argument demonstrating the opposite of what they've just (at least apparently) inferred?

In closing, I reiterated the fact that, for Nyāya, doubt spurs us to investigation. It isn't the place where we stop--and the stakes involved in reasoning well are in fact high. Whether we think the highest good is mokṣa or something else, Nyāya echoes others from all over the world (Śāntideva, Ibn Tufayl, Zhu Xi--to name those my students have read this semester) in asserting the interrelationship between thinking well and living well.

Some days it feels as if there is not much that a single person do in the face of the complexity of the world. However, my hope is that doing just this small part, giving a lecture on reasoning in Nyāya philosophy, may have an impact on the lives of my students and those people with whom they relate.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Quick note: Jackalopes, al-mi'raj, and śaśaviṣāṇa

In searching for some śaśa-viṣāṇa (horns of the hare) clip art in the form of a jackalope, I discovered this article on explaining the origin of the "hare's horn" myth in the US. The idea of a rabbit with horns is not only found in Indian literature (as an example of an impossibility), but also in the American West and in Arabic poetry (known as al-mi'raj). Apparently there is a viral infection that causes some unfortunate rabbits to sprout growths that look like horns, though they don't look as nice as the ones below. (You can Google for images on your own!) So, perhaps it's not an non-referring term after all?

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Arrival: gaviṣṭi and gavagai

Dr. Louise Banks tests the aliens' linguistic capabilities...
Last night I finally saw Arrival. The film hasn't been released in Singapore, so I had to avoid spoilers and watch it during my break in the US. It was worth waiting for, although I guffawed at a few points and found the major reveal to be disappointing. (My post below has spoilers.)

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Peacocks in the rain

One of the poems my students encountered this semester in Classical Indian Philosophy of Language is found in both in Mukula Bhaṭṭa's Abhidhāvṛttamātṛkā and Ānandavardhana's Dhvanyāloka. It describes "the cloud's friends" who cry out at the rain clouds. My students weren't sure who the "cloud's friends" were, and why it would mean "peacocks," even though Mukula explains that it is because they have similar qualities of fondness.

I explained their role in Sanskrit poetry, but without actually having seen peacocks singing and opening their feathers in the rain, it's difficult. Then I found this nice image, a woodblock by a fellow named Ralph Kiggell, in a book called The Third Thing. If you click you can read the accompanying Sanskrit poem (which I haven't tried to track down). It is by Yogeśvara and was translated by John Brough in Poems from the Sanskrit--I am not sure why the book says "anonymous" and doesn't credit the translator!

With tail-fans spread, and undulating wings,
With whose vibrating pulse the air now sings,
Their voices lifted, and their beaks stretched wide,
Treading the rhythmic dance from side to side,
Eyeing the rainclouds dark, majestic hue,
Richer in color than their own throat's blue,
With necks upraised, to which their tails advance,
Now in the rains, the screaming peacocks dance.

This made me think a bit about the difficulty of translating poetry. Here there is rhyme, which signals "this is a poem" to a lot of readers, but at the expense of a sing-song quality that may not match the original meter. What is it that translators aim at when translating poetry? Since poetry is "sound and sense" as the Alaṁkāra tradition puts it, it's basically impossible to get both together precisely in source and target language. Here's the Sanskrit of the poem my students read:

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Malcolm and Fabian at Cendana

Today I, along with another YNC professor, Fabian Geier, presented a philosophy café to our students here at Yale-NUS College at the Cendana Residental College. It was Star Trek-themed, beginning with an introduction to the Original Series and its cultural context, shifting to the Next Generation and concluding with a clip from Deep Space Nine.

Given my interests, it will not come as a surprise that I chose parts of the episode "Darmok" to screen and discuss. If you're not familiar with the episode, the core of it is introduced in the first two panels of the Chainsawsuit comic above. There is an alien race, with requisite face-bumps and strange clothing, that speaks in a way the Universal Translator can't quite parse. They say things like "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" and "Shaka, when the walls fell" but seem to think they're communicating something more--and they are frustrated when the Enterprise crew doesn't understand.

And then Captain Picard and their captain (Dathon) are beamed down to a planet's surface to fight a monster and talk about being human and using language. Quickly the crew of the Enterprise orbiting above figures out that "Darmok" and "Jalad" are names, and Tanagra is a place. But they don't know what that expression is supposed to mean, and they engage the Tamarians in a fight while Picard and Dathon are becoming friends on the planet surface below. Of course, it all ends well, and Picard recounts the Epic of Gilgamesh along the way after figuring out that Darmok and Jalad met independently on some island, battled a common foe, and left as friends.

There's a lot of attempts to explain what's going on in the episode. Counselor Troi says that "images" are important to the Tamarians (the bumpy-faced aliens), and Picard says that "Darmok on the ocean" is a metaphor for being alone, and later seems to think of "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" as an analogy or allegory in some sense. At one point, it's suggested that they don't use pronouns like "I" and "you." In the real world, an article at the Atlantic argued that

Monday, September 19, 2016

What's in a name?

During the past several months, there's been some attention online to the question of what counts as "philosophy" in Anglophone academic departments. Below is an overview of the conversation, followed by just a small observation.

First, Jay Garfield and Brian Van Norden say, "If Philosophy Won't Diversify, Let's Call it What it Really Is." Their conclusion is that "any department that regularly offers courses only on Western philosophy should rename itself “Department of European and American Philosophy.”

Brian Leiter replies that philosophers in Anglophone departments are united by a certain style not by geographical focus (apparently unaware of the existence of the analytic Indian philosophical style). Jonardon Ganeri comments on this post--and is ignored by everyone there--that
It has been well known for several decades that much philosophy written in Sanskrit is highly analytical in style (one need only consult B. K. Matilal's *The Doctrine of Negation in Navya-Nyāya* to see this). So the argument from style itself favours a diversification of the curriculum and the canon.
Lots of other conversation ensues at Daily Nous. Remarks like